N. Korea escalates 'cult of Kim' to counter West's influence
In a time of famine and poverty, nearly 40 percent of the country's budget is spent on Kim-family deification.
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA
North Koreans are taught to worship Kim Jong Il as a god. In a manner unique among nations, the North exerts extraordinary control through deification – a cult ideology of complete subservience – that goes beyond the "Stalinist" label often used to describe the newly nuclear North.Skip to next paragraph
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While outsiders can see film clips of huge festivals honoring Mr. Kim, the extraordinary degree of cult worship is not well known, nor that programs promoting the ideology of Kim are growing, according to refugees, diplomats, and others who have visited the Hermit Kingdom.
In fact, in a time of famine and poverty, government spending on Kim-family deification – now nearly 40 percent of the visible budget – is the only category in the North's budget to increase, according to a new white paper by the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy in Seoul. It is rising even as defense, welfare, and bureaucracy spending has decreased. The increase pays for ideology schools, some 30,000 Kim monuments, gymnastic festivals, films and books, billboards and murals, 40,000 "research institutes," historical sites, rock carvings, circus theaters, training programs, and other worship events.
In 1990, ideology was 19 percent of North Korea's budget; by 2004 it doubled to at least 38.5 percent of state spending, according to the white paper. This extra financing may come from recent budget offsets caused by the shutting down of older state funding categories, says Alexander Mansourov of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu.
It has long been axiomatic that the main danger to the Kim regime is internal unrest. That is, Koreans will discover the freedoms, glitter, and diversity of the modern outside world, and stop believing the story of idolatry they are awash in. "It isn't quite realized [in the West] how much a threat the penetration of ideas means. They [Kim's regime] see it as a social problem that could bring down the state," says Brian Myers, a North Korean expert at Dongseo University in Busan, South Korea.
Since the poverty and famine of the late 1990s, everything from CDs and videos, South Korean radio, and cellphone signals from China, new styles and products, and new commercial habits have seeped in, mostly across the Chinese border, in a way that might be called "soft globalization." Such flows feed a new underground system of private business, information, bribery, and trade that exists outside the strict party-state discipline and rules.
Yet rather than accept such penetration as an inexorable threat, Kim is putting up a serious fight to slow and counter it – by increasing his program of cult-worship.
Like a computer software firm updating program versions, the North is steadily updating its ideology to make it relevant. This practice of mass control by in-your-face ideology has been laughed off in much of the world, including China. But North Korea is increasing its ideological cult worship. The scope of the current project outdoes even the cult of personality during Mao's Cultural Revolution, according to a 2005 doctoral dissertation by Lee Jong Heon at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. Mr. Lee visited North Korea several times for his research.
After the Oct. 9 nuclear test, for example, banners sprang up over North Korea stating "We are a country with a nuclear deterrent." Kim's test feeds a national pride that is part of the propaganda drilled into Koreans from birth: that Kim alone can fend off the US and Japanese enemies. A US diplomat in Asia says such pride may prohibit Kim from giving up his nuclear program in the current "six party talks" – and those talks stalled again in late December in Beijing.
"The cult of personality campaign is more extensive today than in 1985," says former South Korean foreign minister Han Sung Joo, who visited Pyongyang this past October, and in 1985. "Unlike the Stalin and Mao personality cults, there is a deification and a religious emotional element in the North. The twinned photos of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are everywhere. Every speech says Kim Il Sung is still alive. I think if I stayed another two weeks, I might even see Kim Il Sung. The country worships someone who is deceased, as if he is alive."
Kim Jong Il has upgraded his deification strategies to strengthen the family cult system. Western reports often detail Korea's unique "juche ideology" – a theology of Kim worship, repeated hourly and daily, reminding Koreans they are insolubly bound to the Kim family and must erase foreign influence from their minds.